Scottish Government under fire after refuse to back ‘buffer zones’ to protect women from harassment

Campaigners and politicians have slammed the Scottish Government after it refused to back plans to create ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics to protect women from harassment.

By Jolene Campbell
Saturday, 6th November 2021, 4:55 am
Lucy Grieve, co-founder and Director Back Off Scotland
Lucy Grieve, co-founder and Director Back Off Scotland

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Back Off Scotland has accused the Government of ‘failing to stand up for women’s health’, after Maree Todd insisted in a Holyrood debate that a national ban on protests outside clinics wasn’t an option.

The SNP public health minister said the rights of protesters who gathered outside clinics also had to be considered, even though ‘some’ women feel intimidated.

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"Women should have access to healthcare free from stigma. However, any action taken must be proportionate and balance the rights of the women accessing healthcare services and those protesting peacefully and expressing their views,” she said.

"The Scottish Government is determined to find a way forward but doesn’t consider blanket buffer zones the solution. The precedent here in the UK is that its best dealt with at a local level. Our view is that bye laws are the fastest way to address the problem. The principle of protected spaces is one this Government supports.”

It followed Green MSP Gillian Mackay holding a members debate on the issue and announcing she planned her own bill to change the law to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics so women can end a pregnancy “without fear of harassment”.

MSPs from all parties have pledged to support the bill but John Mason said he believes life begins at conception and argued that “someone has a duty to speak up for the baby, who has no voice”.

Ms Todd insisted the ‘fastest’ way to address concerns about women being intimidated by pro-life groups was for local councils to introduce bylaws.

But Alex Cole-Hamilton, Edinburgh Western MSP, has accused the Government of hiding behind councils over the issue.

And the Liberal Democrat leader called on the Government to put rights of women to access abortion services before rights of protesters, who he said shouldn’t be allowed to ‘hector’ women accessing services.

In Edinburgh, the city council told the Evening News, they are still waiting on guidance from COSLA and the Scottish Government – nine months after they supported a motion to introduce buffer zones.

Glasgow council has complained they don’t have powers to introduce them.

Ms Todd claimed that protests usually only take place in a “limited number of locations” in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

However, she was reminded by MSP Emma Roddick that 70 per cent of Scottish women live in a health board with hospitals or clinics targeted by anti-choice groups in the past five years.

Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, which has led the fight for buffer zones, Ms Todd is not doing her duty as women's health minister.

"Calls for buffer zones in Scotland date back to the 1990s. This isn't a new issue for the Scottish Government yet they continue to delay, shift blame, and attempt to cover their

tracks citing unseen legislation,” she said.

"Edinburgh Council, Glasgow Council, and COSLA believe that the way forward is through national buffer zones legislated from central government down.

"The reality is the Scottish Government are terrified of a legal challenge, and the Women's Health Minister is happy to allow women accessing abortion care to continue running the gauntlet."

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “It’s incredibly disappointing that three years after first raising this with the Scottish Government they are still hiding behind Local Authorities rather than take the necessary decision to introduce buffer zones across the country. It’s so desperately important to protect the right of women to medical privacy when accessing intimate forms of healthcare.

"Groups often say they are not intimidating people but that is not for them to judge. There comes a point when we have to make it clear that the rights of women to privacy when access healthcare is more important than the right to picket outside a clinic. If a woman has come to what might be the most difficult decision of her life, she has a right to do it without judgement or hectoring by a picket line.”

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